Superintendent Search: Board Looks To Montgomery For Guidance
In meeting with Fairfax school board, Maryland officials stress discretion, unity in search for schools chief
On most days, Fairfax and Montgomery County Public Schools are competitors on nearly all fronts, both within the greater Washington area and among the large, elite schools systems across the country.
But as Fairfax approaches its first superintendent search in nearly a decade, its Maryland counterpart across the river has also become arguably one of its best resources.
On Monday, Montgomery County Board of Education members offered school board members insight into MCPS' recent search for a new schools leader, an eight-month process that concluded last April when it hired Joshua Starr.
Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale announced last fall he would step down from his post as schools chief when his contract expires in June 2013, marking the end of a nearly decade-long tenure.
While several Fairfax County board members were part of the process that brought Dale to Fairfax from Frederick County, Maryland in 2004 — and others, like board chair Janie Strauss (Dranesville) and Ilryong Moon (at-large) also hired Daniel A. Domenech before him — half of group's 12 members are not only new to the experience, but also to the board.
For all of them, selecting Fairfax County Public Schools' next superintendent could be the largest measure of their tenure.
"As elected officials, what we constantly brought to the table was, this is the biggest thing we are going to do as a board. We better get it right. Part of getting it right was having a process with integrity, and I think everyone was committed to that even if it meant personal agendas being on the back burner," said Montgomery Board of Education Vice President Chris Barclay, one of three representatives who met with the Fairfax board on Monday.
Strauss said based on Monday's presentation, she'd anticipate putting out a request for a search firm this fall, following loosely the same timeline as Montgomery's board: three months selecting a search firm; two months to collect input for a "leadership profile" for the firm to use to pool a slate of candidates; and six weeks for the selection process, from first interview to final appointment.
The board still has to discuss its specific timing, Strauss said.
When Dale was hired in 2004, many residents and community activists thought the process was too confidential; they felt unheard and excluded, and after Dale made his announcement, carried the issue into last fall's school board elections. When asked on the campaign trail this fall, several members now on the board said they would make the upcoming search and selection process more open and inclusive.
Though they agreed the process should be transparent, Montgomery County board members stressed discretion: A candidate could lose her job if her current employer discovers the application, which is enough to deter prospective applicants from putting their name in at all.
In Montgomery County's recent search, led by Hazard, Young and Attea Associates (the same firm that found Dale in 2004), all résumés were kept confidential, as were the candidates who made first, second and final rounds of interviews. Questioning was done off-site, and teachers, staff and community members didn't meet directly with candidates until the final round, when a board of 16 union leaders, community activists and students interviewed the candidates confidentially as well. Those community members had to agree to keep information confidential and attend every session tasked to the group.
While community input was also a priority, Montgomery officials said, they loaded it into the early stages of their process. They invited stakeholders — ranging from teachers, to central office employees, to school bus drivers and cafeteria workers — to talk about what they wanted in a future leader; they did the same with community advocates and parents.
The board's student representative participated alongside board members throughout the process — including casting a final vote.
That vote should be unanimous, MCPS board member Patricia O’Neill said.
"Many superintendents are not coming unless they have unanimity among the board," O'Neill said. "If you have a fractured board in that selection it may totally nullify who is going to accept the job."
Strauss said she thought Montgomery County's focus on community outreach and unity on the board was valuable takeaways for Fairfax's search.
"I was impressed with how their board came together and worked as equals," Strauss said. "All 12 of us have got to be involved in this. You have to figure out how to bring the community in and come together through this process."
To see other highlights of Montgomery County's presentation, click on the PDF in the media player above.